FUKUOKA – Before Ryota Igarashi was a star reliever for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, and even prior to his time in the major leagues, he was very good arm out of the bullpen for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
The 36-year old’s past will be in direct conflict with his present over the next several days, as his former team takes on his current one during the 2015 Japan Series.
“I’m enjoying this,” Igarashi told The Japan Times before Game 1 on Saturday at Yafuoku Dome. “It’s exciting.”
The Swallows used their second pick in the 1997 draft on Igarashi, and he made his debut during a game against the Chunichi Dragons on April 20, 1999.
Igarashi spent the next 10 seasons with the Birds. He was an All-Star five times (in 2000 and from 2002-2005) and led the Central League in saves with 37 in 2004. Igarashi threw what was then the fastest pitch by a Japanese player in an NPB game that year, touching 158 kph on the gun with a pitch to Hanshin Tigers’ Makoto Imaoka on June 3.
Igarashi was also a member of the 2001 Yakult team, the last Swallows squad to reach and win the Japan Series.
“A lot has changed since then,” he said. “Basically all of the players are different. From the time I was a player, when Yakult won, the coaches and players are almost all different. Some of the players from then are the coaches now. It’s kind of a strange feeling.”
Igarashi was teammates with a few members of the Yakult coaching staff, including current Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka.
“I’ve been able to talk to him some,” Igarashi said.
Igarashi left the Swallows after the 2009 season. He spent the next four in the major leagues, pitching for the New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees. He returned to Japan in 2013 and has been with the Hawks for the past three seasons. He made his sixth All-Star Series team in 2014, the same year he struck out 71 batters in 59 1/3 innings and finished with a Pacific League-best 44 holds. He made 54 appearances this year and was 3-1 with two saves, 31 holds and 59 strikeouts in 52 innings.
The Hokkaido native is looking forward to the middle games of this year’s Japan Series, when he’ll get to experience October baseball at Jingu Stadium again, albeit this time as a visitor.
“We didn’t play there during interleague so the first time this year will be during the Japan Series,” he said. “I’m sure it will be a special feeling. Of course it makes a bit of a difference whether you win or lose, so I’ll be trying to help us get a win.”
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